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Parashat Miketz

December 4, 2007

By Sanford Olshansky

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”
(Gen 41:15, 16)

“Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.” . . . And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another man like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” (Gen 41:33, 38)

These verses bracket the central dramatic moment of this parashah and one of the two great dramatic moments in the story of Joseph. (The other is his reconciliation with his brothers, which occurs in the next parashah, Vayigash.) Among other things, the scene in which he interprets Pharaoh’s dream shows how Joseph has matured from an arrogant, insensitive teenager (in Parashat Vayeshev) into perhaps the wisest of the ancient Hebrews described in Genesis.

Joseph’s tribulations – betrayal by his brothers, servitude in Egypt, arrest and imprisonment upon false accusation – have taught him humility. The 17-year-old Joseph, who infuriated his brothers with tales of dreams that indicated he might rise above them, never suggested that his dreams came from God. Thirty-year-old Joseph, on the verge of entering into Pharaoh’s service, gives credit only to God for his interpretation of dreams and presents himself as, at best, God’s conduit.

Many commentators have said that Joseph sensed that the unlikely chain of events which led to his standing before Pharaoh must have been God’s doing. Moreover, it has been suggested that this awareness gave him the courage and inspiration to presume to advise the most powerful man in the world of his time.

As he senses the opportunity to attain high office in Egypt, Joseph knows not to volunteer for the job. Perhaps he realizes that if he asked for it, the dream interpretation and his proposed solution would be perceived as self-serving and would be distrusted accordingly. Instead, showing great presence of mind and composure, he merely tells Pharaoh to look for a man possessing the qualities with which Joseph believes he himself is endowed.

The statement that “Joseph was 30 years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh” (Gen 41:46) is significant. The Mishnah says that at age 30 one enters into one’s full strength (Avot 5:21). Surely our sages didn’t mean full physical strength, which observation of professional athletes suggests is attained in one’s early to mid twenties. I believe that our sages were referring to strength of character or personality, which in this story, Joseph appears to have attained.

The same Mishnah says that at age 40 one attains understanding. After seven years of abundance and one year of the ensuing famine, Joseph would have been 38 when his brothers first came to Egypt to buy food. Although he recognizes his brothers immediately, Joseph does not reveal himself to them, but instead devises a series of tests to evaluate their character and determine whether there is a basis for reconciliation.

It is critical here to mention forgiveness. Judaism teaches that one who has wronged another person must seek forgiveness from that person before seeking forgiveness from God. In this parashah Joseph’s brothers don’t know who he is, so they can’t ask forgiveness for the wrong they did him. Joseph understands that if he reveals himself to them immediately, they might beg for forgiveness insincerely, in consideration of his high position and their great need for food. But another question is whether Joseph could forgive them.

At the end of the parashah, after another year of famine and with Joseph approaching his 40th year, the brothers are tested again. It seems clear that Joseph is willing to forgive his brothers, if they merit it. If he had wanted to take vengeance on them, he could have done so at any time. While he may have gotten some satisfaction from the trials he put them through, I don’t think that this was his main motivation. Bearing a grudge is easy; forgiveness is much harder. The process of testing his brothers may have helped Joseph prepare himself to forgive them.

In the story of Joseph and his brothers both Joseph and his brothers grow and mature. This parashah teaches us that people can and do change, often for the better. It suggests that people who have wronged us in the past should be given at least the benefit of the doubt that they might be different people today. Further, it teaches us that a key ingredient in developing true strength of character is finding in oneself the capacity to forgive.

Sanford Olshansky is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.